As we have already seen, the nineteenth century had some pretty memorable bad boys. Appropriately enough, the king of them all was, in fact, a king—Albert Edward (called Bertie by his family), who reigned in the United Kingdom from 1901 to 1911 as Edward VII. I mean, when a recent biography of his earlier years is titled Edward the Caresser (subtitled “The Playboy Prince Who Became Edward VII”, by Stanley Weintraub, The Free Press, 2001) you KNOW he must have been one very Bad Boy indeed.
It seems at first glance ironic that the uber-bad boy of the century should have been the eldest son of Queen Victoria, who remains a symbol of prudishness to this day. But don’t forget that in her first two years as queen Victoria was quite the party animal, dancing at balls till sunrise every chance she could. It wasn’t until she married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who hated staying up much later than 9:30 pm, that she changed her ways.
Bad Boy Bertie was born November 9, 1841, eleven months after his sister Vicky and not even two years after his parents married. The country went wild at the thought of having a male heir (there were still sinister rumors circulating that the Duke of Cumberland, Victoria’s uncle, was plotting against her to seize the throne if she had no heirs). As befitted the heir to the most powerful nation in the world, little Bertie’s upbringing and education were planned down to microscopic levels by his parents, who were determined to make a paragon of the future king.
Unfortunately, Bertie had other ideas. He was probably dyslexic and had other learning disabilities which made sitting down and learning for hours each day totally hellish…and which earned him punishments and stern lectures from mom and dad. He was also rather homely—weak-chinned, short, prone to fleshiness, and with over-prominent eyes; in short, he took after his mother rather than his handsome father (much to Victoria’s dismay). Had he been born the son of a country squire, none of this would have much mattered. But his parents’ extreme expectations of him meant that the poor boy was never good enough.
So Bertie was crammed with everything from mathematics to military and legal history, showing proficiency (and then not much) only in foreign languages and dancing and deportment. As his father wrote of him, “Bertie has a remarkable social talent…. But usually his intellect is of no more use than a pistol packed in the bottom of a trunk if one were attacked in the robber-infested Apennines.” (Ouch—thanks, Dad.) Nevertheless, he was sent on trips around Europe and then to be lectured at at Oxford University. A tour of America was shoehorned in, where he was mobbed in an eerily modern media frenzy, as well as a stint in the Grenadier Guards training camp where over the course of 10 weeks he was to learn the duties of every position and end up by theoretically having the competence to command a battalion and manoeuvre a brigade in the field.
Pretty crazy expectations, huh? And of course Bertie failed miserably…but during his weeks in the army he discovered the delights of female companionship in the form of a prostitute named Nellie Clifden. Nellie was to be the first of a long (very long!) line of the Prince’s “special friends”, which would include the famous actress Sarah Berhardt and dozens of other actresses and opera singers as well as members of the nobility and the wives of his friends.
Unfortunately for Bertie, the discovery of his liaison with Nellie sent his father into a depression and, already plagued by poor health and overwork, Prince Albert died at age 42. Victoria blamed Bertie for Albert’s death (ouch—thanks, Mom) and decided that the best thing to do was marry him off and remove temptation (she thought.) So Bertie was duly married at age 21 to the beautiful but vacant Alexandra of Denmark. They became the center of the “Marlborough House set”, a hard-partying group of aristocrats named after Bertie’s London home.
I could go on at length about the scandals Bertie went on to be embroiled in, including being named as co-respondent in a few divorce trials and more…but honestly, it really does take a book to describe them all. Despite his weaknesses, though, Bertie remained a fundamentally decent person who was, notably, free of some of the day’s social prejudices (his friendship with several prominent Jewish families and with non-aristocrats helped break down social barriers in late 19th and early 20th British society). It’s interesting to speculate how he might have turned out if his early education and upbringing had been different—or if he’d had different parents.